To Worship the Lord

Dear friends in Christ,

Out of Egypt: Reading Exodus Theologically

On October 14 at 10 a.m., the Sunday class continues its study of the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. This is the twentieth class in the series on Exodus and picks up in chapter 26, as the Lord continues giving instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. There are a lot of instructions. A lot. He keeps giving them.

In addition to being a record of the central event in Jewish history – the exodus from Egypt and journey toward the Promised Land – Exodus also provides a prime case study of the benefits of a utilization of the traditional “four senses” of scripture: the literal, the typological, the moral, and the mystical.

Revisiting the Orthodox and orthodoxy

Last year, the Sunday class spent something like four months studying the “Genesis of Orthodoxy,” the development of doctrine between the primitive Church and the fourth ecumenical council in A.D. 451. It was recently brought to my attention that an occasional member of that class and friend of the parish, Dr. Stephen Morris, recently published a new book on the subject, The Early Eastern Orthodox Church: A History, A.D. 60-1453. More information is available here.

August 28th: On Augustine and Emmett Till

Author Pete Candler wrote recently (here) that a number of coincidences around the date of August 28 struck him on a recent trip through the South. August 28, A.D. 430, was the day that Augustine of Hippo – bishop, theologian, and fountainhead of the Western Christian tradition – died, and so August 28 is the day that we usually observe annually as his feast day.

August 28, 1955, was the day that Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy visiting family in Money, Mississippi, was lynched. It was said at the time that Till, who was black, had flirted with a white woman at a store, though her story changed in the years that followed. The perpetrators were acquitted of the crime; they later confessed to the killing. And, on August 28, eight years after that, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the “I have a dream” speech, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in what would become one of the defining events of the civil rights movement.

In the Theology at Saint Thomas email last week, I mentioned the thesis of some scholars that in Augustine’s Confessions he “invented” the concept of a personal inner life. This is not unrelated to the fact that much of the book consists of his own memories, and the final section of the Confessions is an extended reflection on the very idea of memory itself. In Candler’s post, he talks about the way in which, during his trip, he finds Till’s life and death selectively remembered, and not without opposition: the historical marker that identifies the spot where Till’s body was discovered is riddled with bullet holes, as was the one before it, and the one before that.

As a son of the South, with my grandmother’s sweet tea running through my veins, I am sensitive to the dynamics that Candler identifies. Memory in the South is dangerous and contested. But this is something that the southern United States today has in common with the North Africa of the fifth century, and probably every time and place before and since. Memory is always partial, sometimes “carefully curated,” as Candler writes, with an eye toward self-justification, but also simply imperfect. Even with the best of intentions, truth can remain elusive; with less benign motivations, conscious or subconscious, the management of memory can be a weapon. When memory is obscured, as it often is, the truth becomes shaded. Reality is hidden. Till’s body stays out of sight.

One of the ways that judgment – as in, the Final Judgment – has been described is as the occasion when the truth is told. Finally told, that is, after eons of its obfuscation: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. There is a bracing objectivity to it. No longer elusive, the truth is told about Emmett Till, about those who murdered him and those who found him, about Martin Luther King and those who have heard or read him, about you and me … all is told without prevarication or dissembling or excuses. The whole truth, so help us God, with perfectly clear memory and no shading.

Until the scrolls of history are read, however, we remain in the realm of the partial, piecing together memories selectively. In the Church, there is one that we come back to, a memory that has been passed on from generation to generation. On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus shared bread and wine with the disciples and gave them the instruction: do this in remembrance of me. Share that simple food, in communion with God and one another, and remember. Tell the story. Not for the purposes of condemnation or victimization. No, that act of memory is to be life-giving. The re-living of that painful past event is to fund a future of joy; we celebrate the Eucharist. That death gives life. Remember.

That final telling of the truth is judgment, but it is also salvation. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. Yes, it must be the whole truth, so help us God. But, an Easter imagination can picture, on the other side of that judgment, Emmett Till, Augustine of Hippo, and all the rest of the children of God gathered around the Lord’s banquet table. They could be forgiven sinners all, memories unclouded, living in truth with joy.

Yours in Christ,